If someone told me four years ago that Gov. Mark Gordon would have the best job security in Wyoming, I’d have called them crazy.
The governor’s popularity, always a bit suspect after he won the Republican primary in 2018 with only one-third of the total vote, had taken a nosedive by January 2021. At a COVID-19 protest organized by state lawmakers in his own party, Gordon was jeered by several hundred protesters in front of the Capitol.
Then-Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette) blasted Gordon for ordering a mask mandate, closing certain businesses and limiting the number of people at outdoor events.
“We are here because we love our freedom and because the man in this building is a tyrant,” said Clem, who some at the rally touted as a possible challenger to Gordon.
Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) called Gordon “a criminal” for not authorizing alternative drugs to combat the deadly virus — an act that’s beyond the governor’s authority. One protester held a “Knucklehead Gordon” sign, a reference to the governor’s description of those who refused to abide by the state’s health orders.
Even stretching back to the beginning of his term, GOP officials showed little respect to Gordon, who had won the general election by a landslide over Democrat Mary Throne.
Party officials did not deem Gordon, the former state treasurer, a “true conservative.” Much more to their liking were fellow gubernatorial candidates, Jackson businessman Foster Friess and Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman, who combined won 47% of the vote but finished second and third, respectively.
Then shortly into his term, a global pandemic threw the state, and world, into disorder. Gordon’s COVID response was tepid at best, as he waited for months to finally issue a mask order. But some residents were so outraged that he supposedly took away their freedom, they started a petition to remove him from office.
So, how has Gordon survived all that bad will and emerged as a lock to win the GOP’s nomination?
First, his main rivals from 2018 are gone. Friess, a mega-donor to the Republican Party, died last year. Hageman, meanwhile, was chosen by former President Donald Trump to run against U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney.
Gordon’s three GOP opponents are far to his right politically, but none has even a glimmer of hope to win. It’s safe to say no Republican leaders encouraged Rex Rammell, Brent Bien or James Scott Quick to enter the race.
Only Rammell and Bien attended a recent Worland debate. Quick had a work conflict, and Gordon’s spokesman said his boss had a previous commitment.
Onstage Bien and Rammell battled to prove they should be the conservatives’ choice, but did little to set themselves apart. Both are anti-abortion and said they want to see exceptions repealed for rape and incest, or if the mother’s life is endangered.
Quick, in a Facebook podcast, expressed the same opinion. Debating Freiss and Hageman four years ago, Gordon supported banning abortion but approved of the existing exceptions.
Rammell, perennial candidate for several Wyoming offices, and occasional defendant in northern Rockies courtrooms, finished with only 3% of the vote in his first race against Gordon. Bien and Quick are political newcomers.
Both Bien and Rammell want stricter voter ID laws, school choice and more pregnancy resource centers. They oppose vaccine mandates, Medicaid expansion, stricter regulations for buying firearms and want the federal government to stop meddling in Wyoming.
All of Gordon’s opponents are against “crossover” voting, which would keep registered voters from changing party affiliation to vote in another party’s primary. Gordon, much to his chagrin, is well acquainted with the issue.
Even before Gordon was inaugurated in 2019, Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) filed a bill backed by Republicans to ban party registration changes after May 1. GOP officials blamed Democrats who registered as Republicans for electing the moderate Gordon, since Friess and Hageman split the conservative vote.
The GOP even made Biteman’s bill its top legislative priority, putting it ahead of the party’s traditional demand to not raise taxes. When the measure died Biteman immediately sponsored another, with the same result.
Not enough Democrats changed parties to make a difference in the governor’s primary, but don’t confuse the Wyoming Republican Central Committee with facts. Members still contend it’s what put Gordon in office. I guess it’s easier for party insiders to ignore the arithmetic than to accept that the electorate didn’t agree with their choice of candidate.
Biteman and others have sponsored crossover voting bans in each of the past four sessions since Gordon was elected. None have gone to the governor to sign, though Trump backed the most recent effort.
Trump’s concern over crossover voting has nothing to do with Gordon. He just wants to keep Democrats from supporting Cheney and spoiling Hageman’s chances.
Gordon supported all of Trump’s energy policies to help Wyoming’s fossil fuels industry, and has condemned President Joe Biden’s attempts to reverse them.
“You have a governor that has not been too helpful, I must tell you,” Trump said, without further explanation.
What I am also shocked about is after all the anger the state GOP showed over Gordon’s first victory, it didn’t successfully recruit a “real” conservative to take him on. Biteman was the most obvious possibility, and rumors he would announce his candidacy swirled around the state.
But Biteman didn’t throw his hat in the ring. Perhaps he’s waiting until the end of Gordon’s second term to run. Or maybe, devout party-above-all-else loyalist that he is, Biteman is being groomed for bigger things.
Republicans have apparently made peace with Gordon and effectively rubber-stamped his nomination. The bitter feelings some felt over Gordon’s COVID restrictions seem to have eased. Maybe the GOP’s officers decided they had enough on their plate getting rid of Cheney to please Trump.
I don’t want to make light of Gordon’s challengers, who are taking the race seriously and campaigning hard across the state.
Bien has even hitched his star to Hageman’s high-profile run. His yard signs and fliers can be found next to hers everywhere you look. We don’t usually think of the gubernatorial contest as a “down-ballot” race, but these are anything but usual times in Wyoming politics. Bien’s strategy may well win him votes from folks simply voting what they think of as the “team Hageman” line.
But I had to smile when the trio was asked at a Casper forum if any would drop out of the race to let the strongest candidate take on the governor one-on-one. Bien and Rammell said they would, but Quick — the least-polished politician in the contest — vowed he’s in it to win it, so they’ll all fight until the bitter end.
About the sharpest critique I’ve heard from Gordon’s opponents is Rammell calling him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” That’s a far cry from protesters shouting that he’s a traitor, or Clem saying someone should call the office of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a vehement anti-masker, to see if she could “give one of her testicles to our governor.”
Gov. Gordon, count your blessings.